JERUSALEM — U.S. officials were described Saturday as engaged in "intense" contacts with the Israeli government, hoping to head off the threatened deportation of a number of Palestinians in the wake of recent unrest in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The contacts are under way "at all kinds of levels," according to an informed Western source, who requested anonymity. They follow the arrests of more than 800 Palestinians in recent days for alleged involvement in what have been described as the most widespread anti-Israeli disturbances in the occupied territories in 20 years.
While dismissing an Israeli press report that the army is preparing to expel "hundreds" of Arabs, a senior Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that there is a proposal before the minister of defense to deport as many as 20 Palestinians deemed to be instigators of the unrest.
Major Policy Change
Deportation on that scale would still be a significant departure from recent Israeli practice, in which this extraordinary form of administrative punishment has been limited to a relative handful of those alleged to represent the hard-core Palestinian nationalist leadership.
The Reagan Administration has publicly criticized the Israeli government several times since the unrest began Dec. 9 for what it termed excessive use of force in quelling the demonstrations.
The Israeli military confirms that 21 Palestinians were shot to death by army gunfire during the clashes and that another 158 were wounded. Palestinian and U.N. sources put the casualties even higher.
While there have been no reported shooting deaths since last Tuesday, the army has sent large troop reinforcements into the territories and arrested hundreds since then in hopes of preventing any renewed flare-up in connection with this week's anniversary of the founding of Fatah, Yasser Arafat's dominant faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Violation of Due Process
Washington has long opposed deportation as a violation of the principle of due process. Regional Israeli army commanders are empowered to deport Palestinians for reasons of security without a trial. Regulations permit limited options for appeal, but generally the accused persons and their lawyers are not permitted to see the evidence used against them--allegedly for fear that this would compromise Israeli informants.
The United States also contends that expulsions violate the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which prohibits the expulsion "for any reason whatsoever" of civilians from an area under military occupation.
Israel insists that the Geneva Conventions were meant to prevent deportation for forced labor, torture or extermination, whereas it uses expulsions only to ensure public order and security. It also contends that those expelled have adequate legal protections.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin defended deportation as a legal option in an interview with the Jerusalem Post on Friday, adding that "there is no question that this is a means that we could use" against instigators of the latest unrest.
Israel has deported about 900 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza since 1968, soon after it captured the territories in the 1967 Six-Day War. But the vast majority of those deportations occurred in the first 10 years after the war. The practice went almost out of use for a time, then was revived after a wave of attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians in 1985.
The largest deportation in recent years was of 18 alleged terrorist infiltrators released in a prisoner exchange in 1985. Unlike those who apparently would be affected by the new deportation proposal, however, none of those expelled in 1985 had been residents of Israel or of the occupied territories.
A senior Israeli security source said that while preparations are still under way, the new deportations could take place "within days."
Rabin reportedly reviews all deportation proposals personally, and given the intense level of American interest in the issue, some sources here say it will be discussed by the full Israeli Cabinet before any action is taken.
Cabinet sources said late Saturday that the issue is not on the agenda for today's regular Cabinet meeting, although it might be raised for discussion by an individual minister.
Pressure for Stern Measures
Diplomatic analysts say there is political pressure on Rabin to take stern measures. He had been severely criticized for remaining on a visit to the United States during the worst of the recent unrest, but since he returned early last week, he has adopted an apparently popular hard line.
Israel is fewer than 11 months away from nationwide elections, and as one Western analyst put it: "What Amnesty International says (about deportations) is not going to turn the tide."